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I’m not sure when it began, but I most often trace the conviction that I was constantly being watched to my very early Sunday school classes. After mass, I would follow the sweeping black robe of the nun along with a troupe of boys into a bare room of the Catholic school adjoining the church. All these rooms were colorless and without any ornament, except for crosses and images of Christ in agony, all the more vivid and startling against those drab walls. The small wooden desks had their metal legs bolted to the floor and chairs were attached in rigid position. The lean, dry nun, a few strands of gray hair sticking out from under her bonnet, commanded us into silence (not that we dared disturb the wooden emptiness of that place). She did this without words but with a metal-edged ruler that came down hard on the table beside her. Its flat-side smack seemed to echo in my six-year-old head. We were all afraid of the ruler, and we watched it, usually gripped in a fist behind the nun’s back as she paced up and down the aisles. Silently she tipped the ruler from side to side across her back with the regularity of a metronome. Without warning, she would swing it around like lightening to strike young knuckles. Infractions could be any deviation from the silent focus on the catechism text that Sister demanded.
So I read that text carefully, never lifting my eyes except to show that I was listening to her explanations or eager to answer a question – though, of course, not too eager. One day I was staring at the catechism page and trying to understand a sentence I had been trained to repeat. We were being prepared for First Communion and to achieve that sacrament would have to answer questions put to us by the Monsignor himself. That was a nerve-racking prospect not so much because of the Monsignor – he was, after all, a benign and garrulous man who was especially gentle with us, the youngest students of his flock. No, it was Sister we feared because she demanded that we answer every question with strict accuracy, promptly, without the slightest hesitation or uncertainty because we were speaking the truths of the Church Eternal to the highest ranking father we would ever meet – until, that is, the bishop would tap our cheeks from his altar throne some years later during the Confirmation ceremony. One of those truths we had to master was contained in the sentence I puzzled over.
“God is everywhere.”
Everywhere? How could that be? I tried hard to imagine this. It was hard because we were also told that the eyes of God were upon us. If He had eyes, He must have some sort of body, even if it was an invisible one. So he couldn’t be like the air – which was the only thing I could think of that was everywhere. Even though the Spirit was said to be like the air, I had the problem of the eyes.
Then suddenly the image came to me. We used to have heavy paperweights consisting of a transparent glass globe on a wooden base. The globe was filled with water and on the bottom there was a layer of white flakes. When the globe was shaken, the flakes would fill the water and move in patterns like the falling snow. You couldn’t take your eyes off the swirling snow, and that was the image I needed. Instead of snow, however, I substituted little Christ-like figurines, like the plaster statuettes of Jesus that were so common. So I envisioned all these diminutive Christs constantly on the move in mysterious patterns. Of course, in reality they must be invisible, but they all had eyes and could thus constantly keep watch on everything, but more particularly on me.
This made complete sense in a six-year-old way. I finally understood how it was that I could be constantly under the eyes of God. Those little pairs of eyes were everywhere, recording my every action and my every sinful thought. God kept careful accounts of my behavior, and every impure thought was noted for the gravity of the sin it represented. It was especially important, then, that I confess these thoughts every week to the priest in the dark confessional and complete my penance carefully, every word of every prayer, and do so with complete sincerity – for those penitential acts were also being noted down. For every sincere repentance, a mark against me in the eternal accounts would be erased, and I would have another chance.
I believe this was the first time I could conceptualize being watched in every moment of my life, though I had long assumed this was the case. Now I knew that it was true because it had all the holiness of Church doctrine behind it. This was simply the condition of life.
Against all reason, I have never lost the conviction that I was being watched, stared at, judged, even when alone in my room writing, as I am now. There is always the extra tension of feeling the presence on me of the eyes of – whoever – neighbors, passersby, audiences refusing to applaud – whoever the moment requires the watchers to be. It is no longer God but people. And I am always playing to these invisible people. It is, of course, that much worse when I am among real folks who are actually looking at me. I always feel their heavy judgment, and I always know that I do not measure up to the expectations I am certain they have.
These days I have much more grown-up explanations for this conviction that I did at the age of six. Now I can say that depression is projecting my sense of worthlessness out into the world and having all those people who look my way confirm the crushing judgment that I can do no right, that I can never measure up. How conveniently the mind works, nimbly playing all the characters on stage at once.
And I have other explanations as well, equally grown-up ones. I’ve written about the eye of the camera focused on me by my mother. That’s powerful watching for a young boy, looking to find his mom’s loving eyes but staring instead into a finely curved lens. I wanted her to see me but not simply to press a mechanical button and then move on to another interesting shot. A boy wonders and knows without thinking – Is Mom watching me now? Will she see a cute or a poignant picture to capture or will she see me? And how will I know what she sees when I look into that ungiving, uninformative face. Clearly, I am not the one her eyes want to see. Even when a young boy, I developed the habit of posing to capture attention, but it was always the camera I got or a cool appraising look.
So – I tell myself without thinking: keep trying to get attention by presenting new faces – just so – look a little more commanding, or a little more humble, look strong, look indifferent in the face of danger, look warm and loving, look happy and content, look wild, look deep. Keep trying a different look, playing a different part . One day all those eyes will open wider and brighten at what they see. One day.